Women of the Wall seeks to reinvent the Kotel

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein


I recently led a special delegation of 16 rabbis from across North and South America to be with Women of the Wall (WoW) on Rosh Chodesh Kislev for its monthly services at the Kotel, as well as to meet with Knesset members, lobbyists, and the WoW board. Two days after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of WoW at the Kotel with more than 600 women –and with little of the usual chair-throwing, whistle-blowing and cursing that they normally endure monthly – Avigdor Liberman, the former and since reinstated Israeli foreign minister, donned a tallit and celebrated his acquittal at the Kotel.

I was struck by the juxtaposition. For 25 years these pious, multi-denominational, serious women have tried to pray at the Kotel with tallit, tfillin and Torah and have only recently won the tenuous right to the first two, but not the third. But Lieberman can swagger right up to the front and be sure he will be welcome.

In previous months on Rosh Chodesh, busloads of yeshiva girls have been encouraged to jeer, intimidate and, by sheer numbers, push WoW away from the Wall itself into the plaza. We were determined not to let that happen this time, so on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, we arrived an hour early to “stake out” a portion of the women’s section. At the last minute, the Bnei Akiva rabbis called off the buses. The few 15-year-olds who did come stood defiantly, yelling and waving fingers at women the age of their mothers with a rudeness I still cannot believe. We tried to be dignified as we sang to their taunts. Soon, WoW participants swelled and filled most of the section, while 20 female police officers made a line of protection around us.

I cannot fully describe the sound of 600 women singing with fervour. From the men’s side – unusually sparse that day – a microphone drowned out our voices. But just as we began the Shema, the microphone suddenly went silent. We were stunned to find out that the police had cut the electricity, allowing us to proceed without having to engage in a prayer-shouting match.

Unafraid for the first time to don tfillin or tallitot at the Kotel, we held up six empty Torah mantles, symbolizing our desire and our inability to read from a Sefer Torah, since a new order from the rabbi of the Wall gave him ultimate authority over who gets to bring in a Torah scroll.

The most moving moment for me was holding our tallitot over our heads in a “group” aliyah. If you’ve ever witnessed the priestly blessing done on holidays with hundreds of black-and-white tallitot covering the men, imagine instead tallitot of all colours, silk and lace and rainbow. Words cannot fully do justice to the sight. We were “priests” for the first time in our lives.

I understand those for whom the Western Wall’s stones are the only stones that have the weight of tradition. In my dreams, I want a Western Wall where every Jew feels welcome, nurtured and valued. But that Kotel does not exist, and for me the Western Wall stones have been sullied since their “liberation” in 1967.

Women of the Wall now face a critical crossroads. Some believe that if they fight hard enough, women’s prayer with tallitot will one day be welcome there. Others know this is not possible, will never be possible, and in the meantime, the right of tallit and tfillin hang on a thin thread.

This latter group, represented by the board of WoW, has agreed to move the monthly service to the southern part of the Western Wall. There you stand above fallen Herodian stones that share the same antiquity as the Western ones, minus the visual optics of being “the” Wall, and the connection to the iconic paratrooper liberation photo of 1967.

Until the government builds a beautiful, appropriate and equal southern site, WoW will continue to fight for space and dignity in the women’s section. But if WoW’s demands are met – including one entrance for all, visible and equal choice between three sections (men’s, women’s, mixed), equal funding for all three sections, equal state recognition for all three sections, and authority over the new section ceded to co-ed advisers from all denominations – WoW can have a Rosh Chodesh service with a mechitzah at the southern stones of the Western Wall and all of us will be able to pray without harassment.

Which do we want more: to get what we want, or for the haredim to not get what they want?

Women of the Wall aren’t moving from the Kotel. They are moving the Kotel itself. Women of the Wall may go down in history as having reinvented the Kotel. The same imagination that allowed us to envision a woman in a tallit when we had never seen one, a woman leading prayers when we had never heard one, and a female rabbi when we had never met one will get us there. While these southern stones may not be the stones we remember, they will be the stones our grandchildren remember. This will finally be a truly pluralistic Kotel for a truly pluralistic people.

When all the WoW demands are met, the new Kotel will be ready, and those stones will gain a deep sacredness just like the others. We will, to be sure, miss the old Kotel, like immigrants miss the old country. And while Liberman may still be welcome at the old Kotel, I will finally be welcome at the new one.

Rabbi Goldstein will be offering a slideshow and discussion on WoW on Monday, Dec 2, at 8 p.m. at Wolfond Centre, 36 Harbord St. No charge and no RSVP necessary.